Mary Burke, Community Focused
“We're at a critical junction right now. We're not trending positive,” says MMSD school board seat 2 candidate Mary Burke. “We have to turn the ship around. But I see opportunity. There aren't any challenges that scare me or that we can't do something about, but we need a sense of urgency.
“I really believe that if we're going to make substantial progress, it has to be a collective effort and the school board will have to play a very important part,” she adds. “We need to make it a top priority.”
The achievement gap is a community issue, not just a schools issue, Burke tells The Madison Times in an interview outside of Jade Mountain Cafe on Madison's near east side. The MMSD's dismal four-year graduation rate of just 48 percent for Black students and 57 percent for Latinos has been well documented.
“It's the most critical and pressing issue facing the district. I think we've progressed a huge amount just in the last six months in terms of awareness,” Burke says. “I've been working on educational and achievement gap and educational issues on a full-time basis for the past five years.”
Burke is a philanthropist who has dedicated her life to strengthening the community. She has been an executive at Trek Bicycle and has served as secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Commerce under Gov. Scott Doyle. She has earned a bachelor's degree in finance from+ Georgetown University and a master's degree in business administration from Harvard University. A longtime child advocate in Madison, she is currently co-chairing a new initiative called the South Madison Promise Zone.
“There's nothing that I care more about than our kids and I believe Madison is a great community to get things done,” Burke says. “I believe that Madison is a caring community and that when they see an issue that is important, they want to do better. I wouldn't run for school board in other places than Madison.”
With an East High teacher, Burke co-founded the AVID/TOPS program, the school district’s premier program to address the achievement gap that serves 450 students across all four Madison high schools and will soon expand to 800 students. For those in the program, grade point averages are 30 percent higher, school attendance is higher, discipline issues are down and 100 percent of seniors have gone on to college. “We saw kids at the Boys and Girls Club who did fine academically but college was not even on their radar,” Burke says. “That's what made me believe that we have to do something because we have so many kids who are not reaching their potential. From that experience and from the initial success on a large scale of AVID/TOPS, I know that we can do something. But it takes a vision and a really specific plan.”
Specific benchmarks, innovation, and accountability are all desperately needed. “If we just think that doing the same thing but just trying a little harder will do it.... that's not going going to mean 48 percent [Black] graduation rates are going to be 85 or 90 percent,” she says. “It's going to take significant work. But I believe that it is doable and I think that Madison is just the type of community that can do it. I am more excited than ever. I believe that this is a community — when there is an awareness — that can come together for collective action.
“I think it can be done,” she adds. “We need to be very specific and base it upon programs that have been proven to work successfully. We need to have models of success on a smaller scale before we try them districtwide. We need to have benchmarks to know that we are succeeding.”
Burke stresses the need to have accountability. “I know that accountability carries connotations for some people that it is really a hammer,” Burke says. “I don't always like that word. But I see accountability as more of a flashlight that shines light to make sure we on the right path and with that you can make corrections if you need to change anything. The WISCAPE [Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education] group out of UW does an annual assessment of AVID/TOPS site teams — the teachers and Boys and Girls Club staff — and uses that data not in a way that is threatening or judgmental, but in a way where they can figure out how they can improve.”
Burke wants to focus on early literacy and math. She tutors children over at Frank Allis Elementary and she can already see kids who are significantly behind.
“Let's catch it early. Let's get the intervention,” she says. “Let's not hang on to programs that haven't been proven to be effective. Let's ditch those because they are wasting resources and they are wasting kids’ lives.”
Superintendent Dan Nerad recently released his plan to lessen the achievement gap. Burke likes many aspects of it.
“What I like about the plan is that it gives us options on the table — some are better than others,” Burke says. “Before, we didn't have any options that were taking the issue seriously. But I think the plan lacks goals, benchmarks, and specific outcomes ... especially with this issue. It's been around 40 years and we haven't gotten on top of it. So, we do need to be very specific or we could waste another 5 years and millions of dollars and not see any results.”
Burke believes we should be looking at possible community collaborations much more than in the plan. “[I'm not in favor of] extending the school day an extra hour for 27,000 students at a cost of $5 million a year to me when you only have 4,000 students who really need that extra hour of learning time,” Burke says. “What we can do is to collaborate with the existing after school programs to have a more effective and targeted approach whether it's MSCR [Madison School & Community Recreation] the Boys and Girls Club, Goodman [Community Center], or East Madison [Community Center] or the Lussier Center. We have some wonderful after school programs here in Madison but they need to be much better coordinated with the schools and the classrooms and the teachers because right now it's hit or miss whether a student is even enrolled in these programs and, secondly, whether they are getting the targeted attention they need.”
Burke would like to see a neighborhood-based approach that would have the people who actually live in the low-income neighborhoods and the local community organizations running the programs.
“We need specific training on how they can engage parents as partners in their child's learning at home,” Burke says. “How can they better advocate within the school? [We need] people who speak their own language who share their cultures that parents feel comfortable with and trust. I just think we have to understand that culture is part of the contributing factor, but it doesn't need to be. We need to reach people where they are at and not ask them to come to where you are at.
“The [lack of] comfort level for minority parents and the distrust are high enough that it is a barrier,” she adds. “We need to find ways so that parents can feel comfortable. It's really important.”
The city of Madison is at a crucial point right now, Burke says.
“I was born in Madison, but I grew up closer to Milwaukee and I've seen Milwaukee over the years,” Burke says. “I don't want to hit the panic button here, but it is a critical time. I know it's not popular to talk about it, but in the last 15 years the White enrollment in our schools has gone from 18,000 students to 12,000 students. We lost a third of our White enrollment in 15 years at a point where Madison didn't lose any White population. Not only do we have people making choices to locate elsewhere and send their kids to other schools, but we also having Madison parents deciding to send their kids out of the District or to private schools.”
MMSD is now less than 50 percent White. “Middle-income African American and Latino parents are choosing to send their kids to private schools and out of district,” Burke says. “We need to make sure if our District is going to be healthy that we are having a great education for all students. High performers need to be challenged and our low performers need to be able to be raised up to grade level. We need to set a really high bar. We were named 'the most educated city in the United States' recently. We need a public school education that is on par with that.”
Addressing the achievement gap does not have to mean taking from one student and giving to another. “I think, overall, we need to raise the whole level, but we must understand how we are engaging students at all levels,” Burke says.
Burke is complimentary of her school board election opponent firefighter Michael Flores but believes she offers a lot more experience in education, finance, and leadership positions.
“Twenty years more of experience that I have over Michael — experience that is really directly related to education, governance, and school boards whether it's managing and budgeting, finance experience with education, or the organizations I've run,” she says. “I have that hands-on experience for how we can create a high bar and a vision for what we want to be but also experience in how we can get there.”
Michael Flores, Grassroots Candidate
“I have faced many of the obstacles that the kids in our school district are currently facing,” says Madison Firefighter Michael Flores who is vying for the open seat 2 of the Madison Metropolitan School District School Board. “Coming from poverty, being a minority, sounding different and looking different ... I don't allow that to hinder my efforts to do something. I want to empower our kids — our students. I want them to know that there are people who do care about their education and that they can break through those barriers. We need to demand high achievement from all of our kids equally.”
Flores is running for a school board seat being vacated by retiring board member Lucy Mathiak, who defeated four-term incumbent Juan Jose Lopez in 2006. If Flores should win, he would be the district's first Latino representative on the board since Lopez lost.
Flores believes that he will provide an important voice that you won't normally find on the school board.
“I am with the roots of the community. I can jump into groups comfortably and speak honestly with different people,” he tells The Madison Times in an interview at the Genesis Enterprise Center on Madison's south side. “There's no disconnect. I didn't read about the struggles in the Madison School District — I went through it and lived it. There is a difference.”
At a recent Nuestro Mundo-hosted forum at the Bridge Lake Point Neighborhood Center, Flores was the only candidate able to speak both languages. “I liked it because the tables were turned because the other candidates were the minorities and they felt a little out of place,” he says. “People need to experience that because it is an important learning experience. It really pulls you away from your ethnocentric mindset.... It pulls you out of your comfort zone.”
Flores was born in Madison, but lived with his grandmother in Mexico from the time he was a toddler until middle school. As a result he speaks fluent English and Spanish. His mother and stepfather have worked as janitors. He graduated from Madison East High School and attended Madison Area Technical College before becoming a firefighter. He gained notoriety for speaking out during last year's protests over Gov. Scott Walker's rewriting of the state's collective bargaining laws.
“I was encouraged to run for school board when Governor Scott Walker took office... his agenda did not jibe well for me,” Flores says. “When he started to attack our teachers, it made me angry. I believe in public education. If this [attack] would have happened when I was a kid, I wouldn't have been able to be here today. I believe education can resolve a lot of issues that we face. It brings people out of poverty.”
Flores testified before the state Legislature and was outspoken at the capitol building and at numerous forums and get-togethers throughout the city. “We undervalue our teachers and our educators,” Flores says. “I have seen the passion that arose from people at all levels during the protests at the Capitol. I was there hand in hand with them.“
Flores says we need to do a variety of things to begin to lower the MMSD achievement gap.
“Number one, we need to funnel more money into our educational system,” he says. “We need to reduce the class sizes; I think that's a huge factor because it allows the teachers the time to do more one-on-one with kids who are falling behind.
“We need diversity in schools,” he adds. “Diversity is important. We need to embrace that and we need to break the glass ceilings that exist. The people who have been in charge of that have been dropping the ball.”
Flores, who has received Madison Teachers Inc.'s endorsement, found a lot that he liked in Superintendent Dan Nerad's recently announced plan to lessen the achievement gap.
“The biggest thing that I like about his plan is the outreach to the community and having the parent liaisons,” Flores says. “It's really reaching into the community and getting a better respect for where our kids are living and the environments they are in. It's knocking those barriers down that prevent family members and parents from getting involved. We need to make them comfortable. This is a good step forward.”
Concerns for Flores of the plan are that the price tag is huge and some of the things in the plan seem like ideas rather than something with measurable benchmarks for success. “We need something tangible that we can show family members,” Flores says. “We need to be able to measure it.
“I think we can save some money by involving the community agencies that are doing so many things already like helping with homeless kids and making sure they have access to tutors,” he adds. “We need to work with the programs that do exist and identify what our kids need and guide them that way so they can be successful.”
Flores has three children in MMSD ages 11, 9, and 7 who attend Nuestro Mundo schools in Madison. He says that parental involvement is one of the keys for lessening the achievement gap.
“There is a PAAS (Parents of African American Students) group at Franklin Elementary School that should be copied. There are other parents groups that are doing great things,” Flores says. “I'd like to see more men get involved in their children's education. Or any male role models, for that matter. I grew up without a dad but I had good teachers that were positive male figures in my life. We need to reach out and keep trying for those struggling students. We need to keep those doors open.”
Another key is getting kids started on the right educational path early.
“Kids are sponges. They can be so enthusiastic. We need to get to our kids early,” Flores says. “There are studies that show the availability of books that you have at home parallels the success that you will see in school.
I like to look at the glass half full,” he adds. “What are we doing right for the 50 percent of minority kids that are graduating and how can we duplicate that with the rest? We really need to talk to those kids and find out what they are doing in school and what kind of structure they have outside of school. It's not something that we can do just within the school district.... lowering the achievement gap will be a huge community drive.”
Flores says that he is the right candidate to help do this. He thinks of himself as the grassroots guy and the “on-the-ground” guy in this particular race.
“I've walked the path. I've seen the struggle that the kids have and challenges that they are facing. I aim to work beyond the school board and to unite those entities that can help,” he says. “We have Centro Hispano, Centro Guadalupe, the Urban League, Fresh Start. We have so many great agencies here in Madison. We really need to reach out. I'm in tune with what our kids like and what they need because I have kids in the school district.”
Madison is at a crucial point right now, he adds, and we need to be urgent.
“We have a great community here in Madison. We can get ahead of the problem,” Flores says. “We don't need to be a New York or Chicago or Milwaukee. They are working from behind. We really need to take advantage of all this attention.
“I believe that I'm the best candidate for school board,” he adds. “I bring urgency and enthusiasm and a little bit of youth. I am very passionate about this.”